'The fans love me for being a rogue. They just tell me to kick people'
Joey Barton, perennial bad boy of English football, has made a fresh start in France
By Jonathan Northcroft - Sunday Times
The Mediterranean twinkles; blue and bejewelled. It's mid-October but the temperature is 70 degrees: he gazes down to Cassis harbour, with its pretty boats and pavement restaurants, where he'll have a seafood dinner in T-shirt and shorts. The villa has a Santa Monica feel and Barcelona chairs. Chic.
Sometimes he saunters out here, to the balcony, and into his head pops George Best's old ironic line: "Where did it all go wrong?"
"I've come from a council estate in Liverpool," he muses, "a little different to this place. There a spectacular sight is a burning car." Even if his "journey" had been different, being here would feel remarkable. But he's Joey Barton and this stop-off seems a miracle.
He's been in prison, battled alcoholism and problems with anger and violence, braved Newsnight, amassed more Twitter followers (1.76 million) than Paul McCartney and gone to the brink of losing his livelihood several times. Now he's in this sunny place, coffee on the balcony, partner Georgia and baby son Cassius playing indoors.
He wants to grasp this fresh start and one day — though "I'm expecting to live till about 120" — we could be chiselling on his gravestone: "He Fell From A Great Height But Landed On His Feet."
Before his season-long loan to Marseilles, Queens Park Rangers had blocked him from joining Football League newcomers Fleetwood Town. In League Two he just wanted to reconnect with his love for the game. Now, at the French League leaders, he can have greater ambitions. He hopes to "reinvent" himself as a holding player, perhaps contend for an England place again, and please 60,000 fans packing the Stade Velodrome rather than Fleetwood's average 2,500 gate.
He's "training like a demon", lean, "the fittest of my career", providing two assists on his home debut, a 5-1 Europa League win against AEL Limassol. He can't play in Ligue 1 for another month because of the 12-game ban incurred for elbowing Carlos Tevez, kicking Sergio Aguero and then confronting Vincent Kompany in a melee in the final game of the season at Manchester City.
Last season was a sudden regression for Barton: before being given red cards against Norwich and then City he'd been sent off once in six years. By presenting one of football's most active and inquiring minds — via social media — he'd shown a different side of himself. May's meltdown enabled people to stuff him back in a box marked: "Do Not Touch."
He says: "Part of me thinks, 'Is it self-sabotage?' Am I acting the villain because people think I'm a villain?" He makes no excuses. But there were circumstances.
He'd promised the Rangers owners: "You won't go down if you sign me." Trolls were tweeting about relegation.
QPR's fans "didn't particularly like me" and he was locked in a poisonous relationship with his manager, Mark Hughes.
He says: "Tevez punched me. It was the spark that lit the bonfire.
But the bonfire was already piled up and soaked in petrol. I was having a lot of problems. I'd started drinking again, which few people know, backsliding after a couple of years on the wagon. I was really struggling. Personally and professionally not all was what it seemed.
"Afterwards, you know you've done wrong, it's best to put your head in the sand, let everything settle. Of course that wasn't what I did, I continued kicking myself by going to war on Twitter. I look, now, and think, 'Idiot'. But I can't change it. All I can do is learn." He knows: "I f***ed up."
But when you watch the incident on YouTube, there's something cartoonish about the fracas. He doesn't even touch Kompany. Absolutely the worst thing to happen on an English football field? That's what his 12-match ban, the record for an English player, implies.
"The FA charged me for separate offences that took place in the same 25-second sequence," Barton says. "Yet Pablo Mills [banned for six games for brawling while with Crawley Town] threw a number of punches but was charged for one offence. Paolo di Canio [banned for 11 games in 1998 while playing for Sheffield Wednesday] fights a player, gets sent off, pushes the referee over, raises his hands to Nigel Winterburn ... "In the cold light of day, noone was dead. Aguero got a dead leg. It self-evidently didn't affect him because 20 minutes later he was scoring the winner. Tevez and Kompany were fine.
"I think the FA reckoned I'd appeal and they could make it nine games. Maybe by not appealing I won a small, perverse victory. Because it makes them look bad. John Terry got four games. Luis Suarez eight. So I'm Terry plus Suarez? "What it says is, if I'd racially abused the City players I'd have got a lot less than for 30 seconds of the red mist descending. What message does that send to kids? Where does that leave 'Kick Racism Out Of Football'?"
QPR rejected his offer to resign from the club yet Hughes made clear that he was unwanted, ordering him to train with academy players. Things further soured when Barton rejected a loan move to Sheffield Wednesday. Fleetwood got blocked. "My selfesteem was out of the window," he says. Then came a moment when life just clicked.
His representative, Willie McKay, was negotiating Stephane Mbia's move to QPR from Marseilles when he said to the French club's largerthan-life sporting director, Jose Anigo: "Fancy Joey?" Mais oui was the immediate response. Did Barton fancy Marseilles? Enough to forfeit £500,000 in wages to join for the season.
Marseilles, France's "rebel city", mother of Zinedine Zidane and Eric Cantona, seemed perfect for a bad boy — confirmed when 'L'OM' fans unfurled a banner that read: "Welcome Sweet and Tender Hooligan".
"My slate's never going to be clean but I think I've found a football club who love me for being a bit of a rogue," he says. "It's an embodiment of what the Marseilles fan is. The Marseilles fan isn't your middleclass toff. Marseilles is a gritty, dark, urban melting pot. Out and about you see a lot of symbolism, graffiti, Che Guevara stuff. Outlaw. Rebellious. Anti-Paris. I've been shown real warmth — and I've hardly played. I feel humbled by that.
"I've been dry since the summer. Focused. Living right. I want to go to war for this club and be successful. I'm very, very confident I'll pull it off."
The training ground is 20 minutes away, between Cassis, a coastal village, and the sprawl of the city. Barton tries to be first there, last to leave. He's learning French and already chatting to teammates in pidgin language. The other day he was bantering about Britain being best. "Because of all our inventions," he laughs. "Mind you, I was claiming everything. Sewage — I know that was the Romans. The best they came up with was bikinis ... and scuba equipment!" His two Europa League games suggest he'll also fit in on the pitch. Marseilles, with young, expressive talents such as Mathieu Valbuena and the Ayew brothers, Andre and Jordan, wanted a tough, experienced pro to drive others. He feels he can slot in beside Benoit Cheyrou as one of two holding players. Barton can certainly tackle, has a passing range and decent tactical brain — and has reinvented himself once before, improving his crossing and set-pieces to play wide at Newcastle.
He says: "I believe I could be a really good 'No 6'. If you look at the skills set, I've got it. In England, because I have an engine, I was brought through as a box-to-box, stereotypical midfielder. Here they don't believe in that. They believe in the 'Destroyer', the Makelele, the 'Water Carrier', the Deschamps.
We have some wonderful creative players and I can be just the player to do their dirty work. When I first came, fans were saying, 'Barton, just kick people'. I was laughing, thinking what a great position to be in. All they expect from me is hard work and getting stuck in — well, that's second nature. Wait till they realise I can play as well.
"The only place you develop is outside your comfort zone and here — new league, new dressing room, world watching — I will find out something about myself. And I'm a f***ing good player. I want to prove it. So many people underestimate how much I bring to the table as a player."
He can't imagine rejoining QPR. "The analogy is, I pulled the baseball bat out through my own stupidity. The FA took it and beat me. I thought QPR would, rightly, chastise me but they picked the bat off the ground and continued the beating. I was no longer the marquee signing. I was a commodity whose stock had dwindled. You get a gut feeling for things. I walked into QPR and straightaway thought, 'this isn't right'. I'd left a club I loved, Newcastle, and I knew I'd come for money and think I was always uneasy from that moment on. I'd sold out a bit.
"On my first captain's list was 'six plugs' because the players — at a Premier League club — were plugging up the baths with tissue paper. Tinpot stuff. They were paying people massive money but not spending on the basics."
He goes on in this vein but later asks for a lacerating torrent about Hughes to be off the record. Progress for Joey.
Things have not "all gone right", not yet, but our traveller might have found the path. He's 30 now and reflects: "As you get older, you don't want to fight the world so much. You prioritise. When I was young, I wanted to win every battle, every day. Now I think, 'You know what? Have that one'. What I need is to win the war. It's something I'm only learning now.
"I've scrapped all my life. Back me into a corner and I'm born to fight my way out. The problem is: how many times can you do that? How many times can you go to the well? When I went to jail they said I'd never play again. I did. I have fortitude. But in the summer it dawned, 'I've got enough in me this time. The fire's burning. But am I getting toward the bottom of the well here?' Next time I might not be able to fight back. So I've got to try and protect against there being a next time."
Read more from Joey Barton at joeybarton.com
BARTON SPEAKS OUT ON...
'Sometimes I look at my son and think, "He won't have the same upbringing I had". Is that a good or a bad thing? My upbringing gave me a lot of bad traits but also a lot of life skills - and good, working-class values. Money shouldn't define you. I went from being on £70,000 a week at Newcastle to being on £7.50 a week in jail. I found I coped reasonably well. I've spent fortunes in FA fines but I look upon that as a tax I have to pay for being my own man'
ASHLEY COLE/ TWITTER/ THE SECRET FOOTBALLER
'I feel for Cole. Okay, you can't tweet the exact words he did - but if that's what he thinks, that's what he thinks. What's the harm? It got petty ... "Will he get to be captain when he wins his 100th England cap?" But that's the pettiness of the FA. People talk about regulating players on Twitter but how? Fortunately, we don't live in a totalitarian state. And as for The Secret Footballer?' Far too PC for me. If you haven't got the b******s to say it's you, what's the point?'
NIETZSCHE AND PLANS FOR UNIVERSITY
'I get criticised for quoting Nietzsche. That's strange, isn't it? I think it's a case of "Working-class footballer - know your place".
'I've got 10 GCSEs, but of course people don't want to know anything about that. My missus has a degree and I'd like to get one too, and I probably will at some stage. It's one of my regrets that because of the career I've had in professional football, I didn't get the chance to go to university'
THE 12-GAME RECORD BAN
Barton is playing Europa League? Barton is playing Europa League games but can't make his French league debut until Marseilles' 'Derby de la Cote D'Azur' v Nice on November 11, because of a 12-game ban imposed for a red card and two counts of violent conduct while playing for QPR at Manchester City, above. It is a record punishment for onfield offences by an English player - yet Barton's own union stayed away from his disciplinary hearing and he was condemned by Gordon Taylor, the PFA chief executive.
'I'd done a lot for the PFA. The PFA had done a lot for me. It's disappointing when the leader of a union turns on one of his members,' says Barton. 'The highest paid union boss in the world, isn't he? Straight away that worries you. He protects his position, a cushy position.
'Tevez? He's a mercenary. You can't really back him? Sure, I'm a hoodlum, I've got into scrapes - but Tevez is someone who within the last six months has gone on strike, gone off to Argentina to play golf, tried to get himself sacked. If that's not the epitome of what's wrong with modern players, I don't know what is. And don't forget, Tevez punched me first.
'Seeing [Taylor] pander to the media said to me maybe it's time the PFA changed. It should be about more than Gordon Taylor. Maybe he's starting to believe he's the Ayatollah.'